Movie Review: ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’


Plot:  After losing his job as a mechanic, recovering alcoholic Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) returns to his life as a drug courier in order to make more money and repair his broken marriage to wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter).  When a drug deal goes bad Bradley is sent to a medium security prison.  However on the second day of his incarceration, a man pays Bradley a visit.  The drug deal cost cartel boss Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito) $3.2 million and his gang has kidnapped Bradley’s wife.  Unless Bradley finds a way to transfer to the maximum security prison Red Leaf, and kill a man, Eleazar will kill Lauren and Bradley’s unborn baby.


Review:  Three years ago, S. Craig Zahler made his directorial debut with the Western Bone Tomahawk.  It turned out to be an amazing mash-up of horror and Western genres with fantastic performances, especially from Richard Jenkins, and sparked a Kurt Russell renaissance.  With Zahler’s sophomore effort, Brawl in Cell Block 99, the director proves that Bone Tomahawk was not just a fluke.  Visceral, shocking, and led by a career performance from Vince Vaughn, Brawl, while not as good as Bone Tomahawk, is a brutal and entertaining film.

Brawl in Cell Block 99, which Zahler also wrote, sports a straightforward narrative, something that both works for and against the film.  On the upside its utter lack of pretentiousness helps.  Brawl never pretends to be anything other than what it is: a violent thriller where the main protagonist seeks to save his wife from the clutches of the bad guys.  However, if you’re looking for any deeper meaning or character development, you’re out of luck.  The performances are by no means two-dimensional, however.

While the story may be familiar, Zahler’s keen eye for direction still shows through.  Employing wide shots rather than an over reliance on close-ups, Zahler makes full use of Vaughn’s imposing 6 feet 5 inch frame.  It increases Vaughn’s intimidation factor, an excellent choice.  It makes him appear much more menacing.  Zahler’s use of low lighting and a recurrent dark blue color palette, heighten and enhance the movie’s edginess and suspense.  Credit to cinematographer Benji Bakshi on that one as well.  The fight scenes are well choreographed and often take place in cramped settings like hallways or jail cells.  Moreover, the sounds of impact and breaking bones are realistic and avoid bombast ala Rocky IV.

Speaking of Stallone, 80s action films like Lock Up and Cobra definitely influence Brawl.  It also takes it’s cue from the Grindhouse films of the 70s.  This is evidenced by the special effects involving gunshot impacts, broken limbs, and (in one instance) an outright decapitation.  While I see what they were going for, that it was supposed to mimic Grindhouse violence, it didn’t work for me.  Came across as cheap and hokey.

Actors Don Johnson and Vince Vaughn are what make this film compelling however.  Their performances are anything but hokey.  Johnson delivers as the malicious Warden Tuggs, the head of Red Leaf prison.  He exudes a quiet vindictiveness that constantly hangs in the air.  The fact that Johnson never raises his voice makes the Tuggs character that much more terrifying.  With a constant cigarillo in his mouth and his guard lackeys in tow, Johnson chews every scene he’s in.  Yet you can sense Tuggs’ grudging respect for Bradley as he’s not intimidated by Vaughn’s character at all.  This is Don Johnson’s best performance in years and maybe the best villanous on-screen warden we’ve had since Bob Gunton as Samuel Norton in The Shawshank Redemption.

However, Vaughn is the one who rules the day in Brawl.  Playing against type, gone is the Vince Vaughn of films like Wedding Crashers and Old School.  This is an imposing, intimidating Vaughn.  His Bradley Thomas (Bradley NOT Brad) isn’t just a one-note brute, although he is brutal in his violent actions.  Rather, Thomas comes off as a nuanced character, fiercely loyal to his family and employer and surprisingly only sees violence as a means to an end.  At one point he refuses to join the prison boxing team because he doesn’t see the point of hitting people for no reason.  Vaughn portrays Thomas as a very self-aware character.  After being fired, when Bradley is asked how he’s doing he responds with, “South of OK, North of cancer.”  That sums up Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas in a nutshell.  Yet he is an inevitable force of nature and God help whoever gets in his way.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 unfortunately received a very limited release last year.    Although it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, most subsequent theaters chose not to carry it.  Consequently, it was regulated to VOD.  Yet I hope the positive response to Brawl propels Zahler to better things.  I’d love to see how he handles a big budget action pic.  However, don’t let Brawl‘s lack of exposure stop you from checking out this overlooked gem.


My rating System:

0-1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
3 Bad
4 Sub Par
5 Average
6 Ok
7 Good
8 Very Good
9 Great
10 A Must See

Brawl in Cell Block 99: 8/10

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